I trained as a speech pathologist and worked for nearly twenty years in the profession. So I was thrilled when Speech Pathology Australia invited me to give the keynote speech to their annual children’s literature awards.
SPEECH PATHOLOGY 2012 BOOK OF THE YEAR AWARDS
Ella Latham Lecture Theatre. RCH. 16th October, 2012, 9.30am
Speech pathology and reading –a natural pairing. Both are concerned with communication. Both rely on language. I discovered their natural affinity for each other at the age of 18. At the time I was enrolled in first year science at Monash university – I was plunging full-time into campus politics and taking a more lackadaisical approach to my studies.
The fact was I was never going to be a scientist. At the age of 8 I had decided to become a writer, a novelist, and nothing had changed. Before the pivotal moment when I realised that the books I loved to read were actually written by a real person, I had wanted to be a character in a novel. Different novels, different characters – and no chance of the boredom that was endemic to childhood. By being a writer I realised I could have my cake and eat it too. As I mounted the battlements during that year at Monash University I realised I needed a career that was compatible with writing.
I knew all about speech pathology. As a child I had been late to talk – very late. It was that early stalwart of the speech pathology profession, Sheila Drummond, who put my mother and me on to the right track. This profession had once saved me from what was in those dark days the netherworld of the not-exactly-normal. It had looked after the five-year-old me, and it would, I decided, look after the adult as well.
I applied and I was accepted. One of my practical placements was with the Spastic Society (now Scope). There was something about the work that appealed to me, something about the children, so when a full time job came up a year after I graduated I took it. As I would later learn, I was the only applicant.
For the next 15 years I worked with children with cerebral palsy, in particular, intelligent children who were severely physically disabled with no functional speech and no possibility of their gaining the physical ability to speak. These kids had great receptive language but no way of expressing themselves. I would work with them on a daily basis in helping them acquire a symbolic form of communication. The best and most powerful form of communication is one based on the same system as we speakers use – i.e. the word. So I ended up teaching these children how to read and spell. I would construct word and spelling boards (the soon-to-be-developed electronic communication aids used the same approach), and the children would point to whole words and spell out others in order to communicate.
And I used books, stories, with these children. They were severely restricted in mobility but what they had in spades was an active mind – and the ability to fly, soar, break the sound barrier in their imagination. There’s a fabulous alchemy that occurs during that intimacy of reading. In that close connection with an imagined world our own imaginations are energised, and so it happens we plunge into novels in the way we would immerse ourselves in a real happening in the real world – but BETTER, because reading sparks our own imagination, reading gives us time to allow our imaginings free rein, and most of all reading is private.
For the children I worked with this privacy aspect combined with the freedom to go anywhere in their imagination and BE whoever they fancied was a great gift. So little they did was private because of the physical care they needed.
We all benefit in the same way from reading. Reading slows down the pace of life. Books take us outside the web of our own problems and difficulties and limitations. How often it happens that after an hour’s reading you suddenly are struck with an extraordinary insight about your own life. Reading makes us use our brains in the broadest and deepest way and so enjoyably. We draw on memory, history, learning, desire, we draw on emotions and intellect when we read – it’s the A-league of mind activities.
And writing does much the same. During the years I practised as a speech pathologist I would write on evenings and weekends, short stories, two practice novels and finally the one I sent out to publishers, my first, Gracious Living – published over 20 years ago, in which one of the main characters, Ginnie, has cerebral palsy.
Since then I have written six more novels. My latest, THE MEMORY TRAP, is to be published next May. So much has changed in the intervening years, one of the most significant being the growth of the digital world. I love the internet, I love the instant answers, I love the research I can do while still in my pyjamas, I love the ease with which I can maintain contact with friends. But what I am less comfortable with is the breakdown between the public and private spheres. Facebook, youTube, on-line streaming, twitter, blogs and other on-line publishing mean that we are bombarded not just with the significant, but also the trivial: the ‘I got up this morning with a terrible hangover’ type of dead thought banal language communication.
In our contemporary society, and particularly for children, reading books matters more than ever. It affords them the opportunity to dream, to imagine the future, it provides them with respite from the constant noise of a technologically driven life.
I am thrilled that the Speech Pathology Australia has sought to recognise the importance of books and reading to the developing child.
Language whether written or spoken: where would we be without it?
Communication whether written or spoken is the foundation to a rich and creative life.